written for Audubon

They’re brighter, cheaper in the long run, and fit most fixtures.
Plus compact fluorescents can be a force in fighting global warming. So what are you waiting for?

If you’ve visited a home improvement or discount store lately, maybe you noticed that compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) are front and center, stacked on the shelves of main aisles in a greater variety of shapes and wattages than ever before. Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, has started promoting energy-efficient lightbulbs—labeled with the catchy Energy Star slogan: “Change a Light. Change the World”—as part of an aggressive plan to sell 100 million CFLs by the end of 2007. The company’s sales of compact fluorescents have more than doubled during the past nine months.

A generation ago the idea that changing a lightbulb could affect the planet’s climate would have seemed like science fiction. Today it’s common sense. Lighting accounts for a third of U.S. electricity use, more than half of which is generated by coal—the primary source of our carbon dioxide emissions.

Powering a single incandescent bulb over its lifespan requires burning 82 pounds of coal, about 100 times the amount needed to power a compact fluorescent. Analysts from Environmental Defense estimate that if every household replaced three 60-watt incandescent bulbs with CFLs, the nation would reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 3.5 million cars off the highways.

Although CFLs have been gaining popularity since being introduced two decades ago, 95 percent of Americans still use incandescents. That old habit is rooted in the many misconceptions about these newfangled bulbs: They’re too expensive, too noisy, produce poor-quality light, flicker constantly, and won’t fit all types of fixtures. But those notions are practically as antiquated as the bulb patented by Thomas Edison more than 120 years ago. Sure, you can still buy compact fluorescents that give off a bluish glow, but today it’s easy to find CFLs that come in a variety of shapes and emit warmer white light.

No doubt you’re also likely to come across a CFL that takes a few seconds to turn bright. “I want to caution about glossing over the differences between [CFLs] and incandescents; it’s different technology,” says Jennifer Thorne Amann, a senior researcher at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in Washington and coauthor of the council’s “Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings.” “But if you think about the energy savings—and the benefits to the planet—I think five seconds to let your lamp warm up is a minor inconvenience.”

While doing your part at home, take heart: You’re not alone. The ban-the-bulb movement is going global. In February Australia announced that it would phase out the sale of incandescents by 2010. In April Canada announced that it would do the same within the following two years. The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation in August that would require lightbulb manufacturers to triple the energy efficiency of today’s incandescent bulbs by 2020. The 27-country European Union has begun pushing CFLs as part of its pledge to slash its carbon emissions by 20 percent before 2020. If every nation followed suit, the impact would be staggering. More than 270 coal-fired plants, each producing 500 megawatts, could be shut down, according to a report coauthored by Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute.

Switching lightbulbs saves money; what’s more it enables people to make a mark on the world through individual action. “This is an important step in stabilizing climate, and it’s one that can be done quickly and easily,” says Brown. “If we get our act together on this, it could become the first major victory for climate stabilization. It’s lowering the trajectory on carbon emissions, and buying us a little more time to develop wind farms and other renewable sources of energy. That gives us a stake in climate change, not just as an observer but as a participant.”

Brown is so bullish that he recommends tossing your old wasteful bulbs, even if there’s life left in them. “The savings are so great that it makes sense to do it right away,” he says. If you can’t bear the thought of being wasteful, get creative. Websites abound with ideas for craft projects that transform your old lightbulbs into all sorts of useful objects, from Santa Claus Christmas ornaments to window vases. (See our web exclusive, “Season’s Greenings,” for more on incandescent bulbs used in craft projects.)

In the United States a coalition of environmental groups partnered last spring with Phillips Lighting to launch a campaign that aims to plug energy-saving bulbs into all of the country’s estimated 4 billion sockets by 2016. Lloyd Levine, a California state assemblyman, has proposed the How Many Legislators Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb Act. If passed, the bill would ban the sale of incandescent bulbs in the state by 2012. Or at least it would if bulb manufacturers haven’t developed an incandescent bulb by then that can save as much energy as a CFL, which remains the best energy-saving option available right now.

Replacing your home’s bulbs isn’t a substitute for the heavy lifting Washington must do, but the cumulative effect of everyone switching to CFLs would be a big first step toward combating global warming. So after dinner tonight, beneath your chandelier filled with candelabra CFLs, sit back and consider the benefits from your lamp lit by, you guessed it, a bulb that can help save the planet.


Make the Switch
Five reasons to give them another chance

1. The Energy Misers
We are used to thinking of watts as the amount of light output from an incandescent bulb when actually they’re a measure of energy production, not the light we see. Using the technology of ultraviolet lights, CFLs produce the same amount of light as a 75-watt bulb but use only 20 watts of energy. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that if every household in America replaced its most-often-used incandescent bulbs with CFLs, the country’s electricity use for lighting would fall by half. If every household replaced just one bulb, the energy savings could light more than 3 million households for a year.

2. Blow Less Smoke
As already noted, compact fluorescent bulbs keep huge amounts of greenhouse-gas emissions out of the atmosphere. Need more proof? Despite having less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States is responsible for almost a quarter of global carbon emissions from energy use—more than any other country. Emissions rose by more than 16 percent between 1990 and 2005, according to a new report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which pins most of the blame on rising electricity demands.

3. Cool It
CFLs produce 90 to 95 percent less heat than incandescent bulbs, giving air conditioners a small reprieve and reducing the risk of fires. The difference is in the way the bulbs are designed. An incandescent bulb heats a metal filament, and much of its energy isn’t visible light—the light is simply a by-product. But a CFL uses only the electricity needed to heat an electrode (in this case, a tungsten cathode) at the bottom of the bulb, setting off a chain of molecular activity that generates invisible ultraviolet light. The bulb’s fluorescent coating inside the tube creates visible light by absorbing the UV rays.

4: Frustrating Flicker
In the old days CFLs took a while to warm up because of their magnetic ballasts (see Myth No. 1), which also caused their annoying buzz. While most new bulbs provide even light, there are a few exceptions. A delayed reaction can occur with some specialty globe bulbs used for bathroom fixtures, as well as outdoor bulbs in climates where winter temperatures dip below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. But weighed against a CFL’s huge benefits, that small amount of time is negligible.

5: Out of Shape
It used to be impossible to buy CFLs for a wide variety of lighting fixtures and different wattages. Now you can find them in almost every type and shape—frosted candelabras, small bulbs, large bulbs, globe lights, and recessed-can fixtures that won’t overheat. For any fixture that requires the bulb to hang upside down, make sure you buy a CFL that is approved to work in that position. You can even purchase yellow bulbs for your porch that won’t attract bugs. CFLs come in dimmable styles, and some work with standard timers (check with the manufacturer). If you can’t find the type of bulb you seek in stores, try bulbs.com or 1000bulbs.com.


About This Article

This article first appeared in Audubon magazine’s November-December 2007 issue. I wrote it after meeting Senior Editor Rene Ebersole at a conference. This story was the result of a lot of talking and idea sharing; it was Rene’s idea. 

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